May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
What will today bring you? As I look in my little red book and at the on-line calendar that the rest of my family uses, encouraging me to do the same, I know that today after worship I will teach catechism class for about an hour. Past experience tells me that I will then go home and have a bite to eat with my wife and daughter. From then on, today might go a number of different ways from spending time with them or with friends, exercising at the gym, watching the NFL Conference championship games, and finally relaxing this evening with our regular Sunday night shows. Today – Sunday, January 24, 2016 – will most likely be a day like most other Sundays in late January, and to tell you the truth, I kind of like it that way!
Imagine being like me, only in the first century at the synagogue in Nazareth of Galilee, thinking what that day would bring: a day of rest, to be sure, but a day of hearing God's word and giving thanks in the context of your family for God's blessings. There is a guest preacher this morning: a local boy named Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary. Joseph was a well-respected carpenter who has been gone a few years and Mary a young widow trying to make it by. This Jesus has a reputation: he has been saying some things in other synagogues and reports in praise of his preaching have spread. It is good to finally have him with us, to hear him share his understanding of the scripture with us, and then to go home with not much changing in our everyday lives. He reads from Isaiah 61, a passage of hope originally meant for exiles in Babylon who were looking forward to returning to their homeland. You remember how the Babylonians had been defeated, and Cyrus of Persia allowed your ancestors to return home. You recall the stories passed down to you - of struggle, how those returning found life hard and yet they persevered with help from Cyrus and his successors, encouraged by Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and led by Ezra to reform their religious practices. Jesus reads the promise and while you live under occupied Roman rule, you remember in these words what God had done for your ancestors – bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, releasing captives and prisoners, proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor, a jubilee year where all can return to their own land and claim it again as their own. God was good in doing these things, and it was good that Jesus reminded you of that. What you don't expected, though, is Jesus to roll up the scroll, give it back to the attendant, and to begin his message by saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In his gospel, Luke uses the word, “today” or the phrase, “this day” five other times besides this one, four of which are significant for its meaning in this particular passage. In Luke 2:11 the angels tell the shepherds that, “…to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the messiah.” In Luke 19 during the story of Jesus' interaction with Zacchaeus, it is used twice – once when Jesus tells him that he is going to his house today, and once when he says, “Today salvation has come to this house…” Finally, Jesus makes a promise to the repentant thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In all of these circumstances, the regular expectations of what is happening for each individual – yes, even and especially the thief on the cross – is interrupted by the unexpected entry of God into their lives. The shepherds won't stay with their flocks, Zacchaeus won't go back to his tax collecting table, the thief won't be condemned to Sheol for an eternity. Something new is about to happen.
This brings us back to Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. We are a lot like the people gathered there for worship, I fear. We hear readings from an ancient book from which many of us don't have a personal connection. Some parts are pertinent to our lives today, but others are not. We no longer follow dietary rules which forbid eating shell fish or animals with cloven hooves. Many Christians have tattoos. Divorce, while lamented as a result of sin in our society, is not a reason for exclusion from the community. So I imagine that you gather and hear some of the Bible passages read here and wonder what it has to do with me. And I also confess that like you, I hear God's word, and I even share God's word in my preaching, and I leave here without much expectation that my regular Sunday routine will change…let alone my regular Monday through Saturday routines of the upcoming week.
Into that reality, Jesus bursts on the scene to make a bold statement and promise: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Today! This reading was not meant to remind us of the nostalgia of a time when it seemed that God interacted more closely with God's people. It's not meant as a carrot in front of us, promising something way down the line so that we just keep pulling the carts of life and all of its busy-ness that we struggle with every day. It's meant as an attention getter, that this very day, God is interacting in your life with good news for you and for all of creation.
That doesn't always sound possible, does it? Even if you get the chance to rest on this day of Sabbath, you know what tomorrow will bring. Where will God break into your life today, tomorrow and the next day? I am not sure of the details, but I am sure that he will, just as he has promised through Jesus Christ, just as the angels promised the shepherds, just as Jesus promised Zacchaeus, and just as Jesus promised the repentant thief on the cross. God comes to us here in this time of worship TODAY, just as he has done so for this congregation since 1921, and promises to be with us to heal, forgive, release, and proclaim God's favor to us in the midst of our busy everyday schedules. Our task, then, is to not get so bogged down in these things that we do not recognize Jesus' presence when that happens.
Over 75 years ago, Lou Gehrig made a speech in Yankee Stadium when he was forced to retire from baseball because of the effects of the terrible disease ALS, which now carries Lou Gehrig's name as well. After setting a record for the most games started in a row, Lou found himself unable to do the basics of life, let alone play professional baseball, and so he had to leave the game. It must have been a sad, difficult time for him, but as he addressed the packed crowd in Yankee stadium, he began with words that I am sure all of us have heard before: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” How can he say that? TODAY I am the luckiest man? Because he knew that even though he did not deserve it, he had the opportunity to play in front of adoring fans, alongside wonderful teammates, and for Joe McCarthy, a manager many consider the best ever in baseball. He also was blessed with a family that loved and supported him for his whole life.
Friends, today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. In the midst of the everyday routines, trials and busy-ness of life, Jesus has come into your presence. Today, you are blessed by God with family, friends, and neighbors to accompany you along your journey. Today, God gives you gifts and blessings and encourages you to use those gifts and blessings to share the love of Jesus with all. Today, the promises of God are being fulfilled in your hearing. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.